Indian Decade

What India Wants From Burma

Policymakers seem to think India’s interests are best served by cosying up to Burma’s junta. But they’re wrong.

As the democratic world rejoices at the release of Nobel Laureate and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from her house arrest in Burma, India stands at yet another crossroads in its history.

Despite the potential dangers, India’s policy elites have for too long failed to undertake a careful review of the country’s international relations. Indeed, since the country secured independence more than 60 years ago India’s foreign policy has been more or less defined by the aspirations of one man, Jawaharlal Nehru, whose vision of what India should be in the world was in vogue until the early 1990s.

Since then, in Burma as elsewhere in the world, geo-strategic expediency has pushed India to embrace regimes who go against the very spirit of democracy. It’s ironic, then, that the release of Suu Kyi came so soon after the recent slight India received at the hands of US President Barack Obama. During his recently concluded visit, Obama commented that global power meant a willingness to take up global responsibilities, and he called on India to play a more active part in protecting democracy. This was no doubt a reference to the ongoing suffocation of democratic ideals in Burma.

However, the point here isn’t to evaluate how the United States approaches its global affairs—this post is about India and the aspirations it has for playing a more proactive role in the world.

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What’s good for the United States may not always be good for India. Indeed, for India, the problem of trying to become a world power is compounded by the fact that it often has to carry the baggage of smaller nations (although admittedly this is often also done with a certain amount of self interest). So India’s attitude towards Burma could simply be seen as reflecting our own geo-strategic needs, in which case it’s only right to recognise that ultimately all countries are expected to act in their own self interests.

In the case of Burma, Indian strategic rivals China and Pakistan began courting Burma’s military junta some time ago, leaving India with little or no option but to cosy up to the generals across its eastern border. Strategists here viewed this as India simply needing to balance its two strategic rivals’ moves.

Meanwhile, the strategic interests of the United States of keeping the heat on China have it pushing in favour of the pro-democracy movement in Burma (although the US hasn’t been averse in the past to propping up dictatorial regimes around the world in pursuit of its global interests).

But this is the thing—great powers have often fought each other not on their own territory, but in foreign lands. Democratic India’s long term self interests should therefore be seen as in ensuring that democracy can eventually flourish in Burma. A democratic and stable Burma would be much less likely to be prey to foreign meddling and manoeuvring, something that Indian policymakers would surely see as in the nation’s best interests.